Sometimes a girl just needs her sushi.
Or, in my case, her sashimi.
I vividly remember the first time I ate sushi. 1984, my junior year of high school, late in the year, in Claremont, California. One of my best friends that year was a bubbly girl who laughed behind her hands, an exchange student from Japan named Haruko. We met in the first days of school, because I was the head of AFS, the foreign-exchange group at my high school. Why? Well, I had spent the previous year in London, and I had just started learning how wide the world really is by living away from my home. And I had been lonely there, terribly lonely. So when I returned to good old CHS, I thought I could make life easier for other kids who came to our school. This explains why I ended up at that year’s Sadie Hawkins dance, complete with jeans shorts and cowboy hat, with the shy, gangly boy from Brazil, the one who was clearly gay. And on top of that, I was an inveterate over-achiever, over-reacher, deciding to join everything and help everyone after a lonely year in London. This explains why I was on the Academic Decathalon team, the College Bowl team, the school newspaper, the softball team, student government, and the German club. (I still can’t believe that one. What a geek.) Oh, and I also started the campus’ Beatles Club. Don’t laugh–we had 85 members in our yearbook photo. Thank goodness I had a sense of humor about it all, or else I would have collapsed. I had too many projects planned at one time. (Hm, this is starting to sound familiar…)
But Haruko quickly became more than a project. We connected, in the giggly, intense way that two smart, slightly odd teenage girls can. She felt out of place in America, and I felt out of place in Southern California. She and I, along with our clutch of close friends, danced to Beatles songs in my bedroom, talked about boys, and acted manic. And I became her English translator, fairly quickly. Every day, she came running up to me in the 400 quad to ask a question. “Shauna, what does ‘run down’ mean? Shauna, what does ‘beat’ mean? Shauna, what does ‘free as a bird mean’?” One lunch, I sat in the overheated, vibrating-with-the-hormones-of-500-teenagers energy of the lunchroom, eating my yogurt and snow cone. Haruko ran through the double doors at the top of the stairs, ran down them frantically looking for me, spotted me, then shouted loudly: “Shauna, what does fuck mean?” All heads turned toward me, and I turned the red of the flimsy Yoplait lid.
But I forgave her.
By the end of the school year, she missed her country’s food terribly. Sushi really hadn’t made an entrance into daily American life yet. We take it for granted now, and pick up flubby sushi at the grocery store. But in the early 80s, sushi started to become more widely known. Oh, I had seen sporadic scenes in films, where the American couple awkwardly sits on the floor in socked feet, staring as the Japanese woman dressed as a geisha slides open the bamboo-paper door to place raw fish on the table between them. But that seemed more foreign to me than Kurosawa films. My family never delved into food from foreign lands. Even when we lived in London, we’d drive down to Harrods to buy Lucky Charms and dill pickle chips from the food court, for exorbinant prices. (I know. I’m so embarrassed. But I remember missing pickles so much that I couldn’t wait through the long car ride home to Streatham. Neither could the rest of us. So we parked the car in front of Charles Dickens’ boyhood home and dipped our fingers into the briny liquid, again and again. We emptied the entire jar, the light-green liquid dripping from our fingers, then drove away without once visiting the home.) Never once did we visit Chinatown in Los Angeles for Asian food. I know it must have been there, but it might as well have not existed.
So the first time I ate sushi was in a strip mall place in Pomona. Haruko wanted to share the food of her culture with me, my parents, and my little brother, who had been her proxy family in the US. Sharon came too, which was the source of some tension. Haruko grew threatened that Sharon and I had been growing progressively, indelibly, no-going-back closer, quickly falling into best-friend-love state, with no signs of slowing. (Ah, dear Sharon, who is my all-these-years, continuous friend, still a dear-daily phone call, twenty-one years later. And these days, she’s jealous that she can’t be here, eating these meals I prepare every night, for other people. I’d give anything to have her here.) And with Haruko a week or two from leaving, I tried to focus my attention on her, but I couldn’t help laughing with Sharon, convulsively, about wordplay I never had to translate.
So it was an odd evening. But now, I can only laugh at it, because I’m no longer 17. (Thank goodness.) And we had just returned from the Montclair Plaza, where we had seen—wait for it—Give My Regards to Broad Street, Paul McCartney’s directorial debut. At the time, we were so swoony and determined to like it, that we all agreed, in high, strained voices, that it had been great. But really, it was just very, very awful. (Paul, if by some weird chance, you ever read this, please forgive me. I loved you fiercely enough to overcome that dreck and dross.) So we walked in this little strip-mall restaurant, lit with paper lanterns, and settled into a high-backed booth, laughing and recounting the movie.
The sushi and other Japanese food was gathered along a buffet line, under bright lights. My mother took one look at it and announced she would never eat raw fish. She glared at me when I said I would, because she was convinced we would all die of food poisoning. Instead, she ate chicken teriyaki, well cooked and coated in gloopy sauce. Haruko urged me to try a variety, along with seaweed slices. I ate the papery, dark green seaweed first, my teeth shattering it on first bite. It tasted more salty than the pickles in London, with a thread of darker taste, something from the sea, something my body viscerally didn’t want to eat. My mind flashed on all the times I had swum in the sea at Laguna Beach, and I had squealed when the green ropes of seaweed wrapped around my legs. The seaweed appetizer tasted of that: the sea, the squeal, the seals I imagined swimming around me. I wanted to stop, but Haruko waited for my approval, so I smiled through the last bite, green shards falling from my lips.
Next, I took a bite of the octopus piece Haruko had picked out for me. It took all my tensile teeth strength to bite through it, because it bounced back as rubbery as those flat pink erasers we used in math classes. To me, it had no taste, just texture, and I didn’t really like it. So far, this sushi experience loomed as a terrible disappointment. What was I going to tell my friend?
But then there was tuna, silky smooth and meaty, light as air and ravenous making. It was like nothing I had ever tasted, and I wanted more and more. We ate salmon, which had been partially cooked, drizzled with a spicy brown sauce, and I could have eaten forty pieces. Suddenly, with my mouth and my zeal, I could see the appeal of this, why an entire nation ate sushi every day. I paused for rice with squares of cooked eggs, but i went back for more sushi, Haruko dancing with happiness at my side.
I haven’t stopped since.
I’ve eaten thousands of pieces of sushi by now, in London and New York and Los Angeles and Seattle. I’ve eaten sushi I’ve grabbed fast from Uwajimaya, the crowded cathedral of Asian foods in Seattle, ripping off the plastic lid to reach my ungagi. And I’ve eaten sushi of such a fine grade, at Shiro’s, on 2nd Avenue in Seattle (by rumor, where Ichiro eats his sushi) that it slid down my throat with such ease it might as well have been breath. But mostly, now, I remember a dozen hundred meals of sushi with Sherry, at a little place on 77th and Broadway, where they brought us hot towels before we ate our meals, and we gorged on gorgeous sushi while we talked about boys and laughed with our hands flying through the air. Dear, dear Sherry, who is now in New Hope, Pennsylvania, awaiting the birth of her second child, perhaps reading this as she waits out the days, and knowing that still wish we could be sitting eating sushi together. On my last night with her in New York, we sat at a table on the sidewalk outside our other favorite sushi place, on Amsterdam, eating tender eel and spicy tuna, and split a small bottle of perfect chilled sake, toasting the journey we were both undertaking. I still have the bottle. It’s sitting on the windowsill of my office at school, filled with dried flowers I bought on my first trip to Pike Place Market, the day I got back to Seattle.
A couple of days ago, tired from a long week, and wanting a break, I drove over to Ototo, my favorite sushi place on the top of the hill. Much fancier, and the food much better, than that strip-mall sushi place I visited first, it has those high-backed booths that remind me of that visit. I ordered pieces of sashimi (sometimes I don’t want the rice clouding the taste of the fish): fatty tuna, spicy tuna, salmon. And others. No unagi, because almost every sushi place has it pre-made, with that syrupy brown drizzle that contains soy sauce. So I have to say goodbye to it. Never mind–there’s much, much more to explore.
I returned home, happy, stopping only to take pictures. And then that melting, satifying taste on my tongue. Taking sashimi home means I can smear wasabi with my fingers, if I want. And I could eat a crate of pickled ginger, if given the chance. It was gone in mere minutes.
And somehow, it was all in every bite: the lonely life in London; the AFS club; giggling with Haruko in our sleeping bags; laughing with Sharon in breathless bursts; my mother turning her nose up at sushi but still driving us there; my little brother, now a father, but still sometimes a young teenage boy in my mind; summer skies above Manhattan; being on both coasts at once; falling in love with my friends; and every piece of sushi I have ever eaten, all piled on top of each other on my tongue.
Food is the thread that connects together all the parts of my life.